What to Know About a Sore Throat

A man sits in bed holding his hand to his throat in pain

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A sore throat refers to a painful, dry, and scratchy feeling in the throat. The most common medical diagnosis for a sore throat is pharyngitis.

A sore throat happens when there is inflammation in the throat. Many conditions can cause a sore throat, but most often a viral or bacterial infection is to blame.

Sore throats are common. About 1% of all medical visits are for sore throats. Any treatment you may need would depend on the sore throat’s cause. 


A sore throat can be described as:

  • Uncomfortable
  • Painful
  • Scratchy

It can also be painful to swallow with a sore throat.

Along with a sore throat, depending on the cause, you might experience some of the following symptoms:

  • Fever 
  • Headache 
  • Joint pain and muscle aches
  • Skin rash
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the front of the neck
  • Fluid secretion from the tonsils
  • Ear pain
  • Red inside the throat

How Long Does a Sore Throat Usually Last?

Most sore throats are caused by a viral or bacterial infection. In these cases, the sore throat usually lasts no more than five to seven days. If a sore throat doesn’t go away in that time or gets worse, reach out to a healthcare provider.


Many conditions can lead to a sore throat. Some are more common than others. Below are some common causes of sore throat.

Viral Infection

A cold, the flu, and COVID-19 are all common viral infections that can cause a sore throat.

A cold can cause other symptoms like stuffy nose, cough, and sneezing. Flu causes similar symptoms as a cold, but symptoms will be worse. The flu can also cause fever, chills, and body aches.

A sore throat is one of the earliest symptoms of COVID-19. It’s also one of the most common, with nearly half of people with the infection having a sore throat. Besides sore throat, you can experience a wide range of symptoms with COVID-19, including shortness of breath and loss of taste or smell.

A sore throat can be present with other viral infections, including:

  • Chickenpox
  • Measles
  • Mononucleosis (mono)
  • Mumps

Strep Throat

A strep throat can cause a sore throat. Strep throat is an infection that certain types of bacteria can cause.

In addition to a sore throat, strep throat can cause the following symptoms:

  • Pain with swallowing 
  • Fever or chills
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Headache 
  • Stomachache 
  • Nausea or vomiting 
  • Red, inflamed tonsils 
  • Small, red spots at the roof of the month
  • White patches of pus on the tonsils


Tonsillitis is an inflammation of the tonsils. Viral and bacterial infections can lead to tonsillitis. This infection primarily affects children, but it can sometimes affect adults.

Besides sore throat, other common symptoms include:

  • Swollen tonsils 
  • Lymph node swelling 
  • Fever 
  • Sore throat 
  • Difficulty with swallowing 


Allergy-related sore throats can be the result of post-nasal drip. After exposure to an allergen, the congestion in your nose and sinuses might drain into the throat. When this happens, you can get scratchy or itchy pain in the throat.

Common allergens include pollen, pet dander, and dust mites. 

Editor's note: Post-nasal drip, no matter the cause, can lead to a sore throat. Besides allergies, causes of post-nasal drip and, in turn, sore throat include:

  • An overly sensitive nose (vasomotor rhinitis)
  • Medications that thicken mucus
  • Gastroesophageal reflux 


Laryngitis is an inflammation of the voice box (larynx) and might cause a sore throat, particularly after talking.

Laryngitis is typically caused by a viral infection, but it may also be caused by:

  • Allergies 
  • Bacterial infection 
  • Bronchitis 
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) 
  • Injury 
  • Irritants and chemicals

Besides a sore throat, you may also find that you are clearing your throat a lot. Laryngitis usually gets better on its own.


Smoking can cause a sore throat. The sore throat typically improves after quitting smoking. Being exposed to secondhand smoke can also cause a sore throat.


Sore throat is common after a surgery where general anesthesia was used. Sore throat is most likely if you were intubated through your trachea. Other factors that increase your risk of having a sore throat after general anesthesia are:

  • Being younger
  • Having a pre-existing lung disease
  • Having been under anesthesia for a long period of time 

Laryngopharyngeal reflux

Laryngopharyngeal reflux is a condition that causes your stomach contents to go back up into your voice box and throat. The contents touching these parts can cause sore throat. Other symptoms include hoarseness, coughing, and more throat mucus than usual.

Editor’s Note: A sore throat that does not go away may be a sign of cancer in the neck. It’s important to remember that most cases of sore throat are due to viral and bacterial infections.

How to Treat a Sore Throat

A sore throat often goes away on its own in a few days. Depending on its cause, you might need treatment.


If your sore throat is due to a bacterial infection, like strep throat, you might need antibiotics to clear the infection. Antibiotics only work on bacteria, though. Most sore throats are caused by viruses. That means a healthcare provider would have to determine what is causing your sore throat to decide whether antibiotics are warranted.

If a virus is causing a sore throat, as is the case with the flu, you might be prescribed antiviral medications.

If allergies are behind your sore throat, you may be prescribed antihistamines to treat allergy symptoms.

Throat lozenges or over-the-counter pain relievers such as Advil (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen) may help manage your sore throat, as well.

At-Home Treatments

If a healthcare provider says you do not need medication for your sore throat and its underlying cause, ask about any at-home remedies you can try to relieve symptoms.

At-home remedies for a sore throat may include:

  • Sucking on ice chips or popsicles
  • Using a humidifier at home 
  • Gargling with salt water
  • Drinking warm beverages
  • Staying hydrated
  • Consuming honey (for anyone who’s at least 1 year old)

When To See a Healthcare Provider

Most sore throats resolve within a few days with or without treatment. Consider seeing a healthcare provider if your sore throat:

  • Doesn’t go away after a few days
  • Causes severe pain and is accompanied by a fever of at least 101 degrees Fahrenheit for two or more days
  • Keeps you up at night because of swollen tonsils or adenoids (the patch of tissue behind the nasal cavity) 

You should also visit a healthcare provider if, in addition to your sore throat, you experience:

  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Blood in your saliva or phlegm
  • Excessive drooling (in young children)
  • Skin rash
  • Dehydration
  • Joint swelling and pain


Healthcare providers will use different methods to determine the source of your sore throat based on what they suspect the cause is.

 Diagnostic methods might include the following:

  • Physical exam: Your doctor will examine your neck for lumps or bumps. They will ask about your symptoms and health history. 
  • Throat culture: This is a test where your doctor uses a long cotton swab to get a sample of mucus or fluid from the back of your throat. The swab is then sent to a lab for testing. A throat culture might be done to check for strep throat or another bacterial infection. 
  • Nasal swab: A nasal swab test detects genetic virus material to diagnose for COVID-19. It is done by inserting a long nasal swab into the nostril and taking fluid from your nose. 
  • Allergy testing: Blood or allergy skin tests can help your healthcare provider determine if your sore throat is from allergies. 
  • Imaging: If you experience severe throat pain that is recurrent or has no known cause, your provider might request medical imaging, such as ultrasound. This might be done if your doctor suspects sinusitis, a tumor, or other growth. 

How to Prevent a Sore Throat

You can prevent a sore throat by:

  • Washing your hands regularly
  • Avoiding anyone who has a sore throat or who you know has an illness like the cold or flu
  • Not smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke

A Quick Review

A sore throat causes pain, discomfort, and a scratchy sensation. It may also hurt to swallow then you have a sore throat. Viral infections like a cold and bacterial infections like strep throat most often cause sore throats. There are various conditions and situations that can cause a sore throat, though, including allergies, secondhand smoke, and anesthesia administration. Most times, sore throats resolve on their own within a few days. Sometimes, treatment is necessary such as the case for many cases of strep throat. If your sore throat lasts longer than a few days or is accompanied by other symptoms, including high fever, swollen glands, or a rash, consider visiting a healthcare provider.

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21 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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